During World War 2, Ukraine found themselves in a peculiar spot. On one hand, the Ukrainians had experienced a genocide from the Soviet government in the form of a manufactured famine known as the Holodomor (from the Ukrainian Голодомор, meaning “Extermination by hunger”) which killed approximately 4 million people. Because of this genocide, it’s easy to see why many Ukrainians sided with the Nazis during the occupation. Two main groups that sided with the Nazis was the the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (abbreviated UPA) and the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, which was an actual German military unit manned by Ukrainian volunteers. While the UPA fought against both the Nazi occupation force and the Soviets, it was the initial goal of the political wing, the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist) that wanted to create the UPA to “unite with the German Army …. until [our] final victory.” However, Germany didn’t accept the proposal and in 1941 began a campaign of repression.
Fast-forward to 2013, when protests broke out in Ukraine over a decision by President Victor Yanukovych to back away from an EU association agreement and choosing to go with a Russian bailout package instead, and citizens accused Russia of unjustly trying to spread its influence over Ukraine with President Yanukovych being too pro-Russian. In 2014, the protests turned violent. After Yanukovych was ousted from office, Russia sent troops into Crimea to “secure” military assets which belonged to them as well as protect ethnic Russians living in the area. Depending on who you ask, Russian invaded, or annexed, Crimea. After that point, a civil war in which was fought mostly between pro-Russian militias in the east and Ukrainian forces.
In a way, Ukraine is like two countries within one. A lot of the eastern part is pro-Russian, while much of the west is pro-European. To counter the pro-Russian militias, some groups have adopted symbols that were used by the Nazis. The “SS” lightning bolts are joined together at the corners. The Azov Battalion uses these symbols often and insist that it’s nothing more than the letter “N” with a line going through it. Some have been even more blatant with displaying Nazi symbols.
When it comes to ridding Ukraine of unwanted foreign influence, many people will claim that it doesn’t matter what symbol is used, the ends justify the means. It’s clear that a large amount of Ukrainians don’t want anything to do with Russia, and considering their history it’s easy to see why. Both sides of this civil war have produce strong ideologies in which there is no middle ground (perhaps pro-Russians want Moscow to spread it’s influence if not to its former glory, then at least to include ethnic Russians living outside the borders). When calls to patriotism go out, history plays as a great motivator. Despite the fact that Ukrainian liberation movements were tied with the Nazis in WW2, they still take pride in that because it still symbolized a struggle for Ukrainian independence.
Amid the current unrest in the Ukraine, the organization of the Ukrainian nationalists have now adopted the swastika as their symbol for the organization. The swastika is often associated with the German Nazi Party that reached its greatest heights during World war II. Thus, the swastika is recognized with death. Ukraine, not least of all was subject to cruelty by the German Nazis and Hitler. Therefore, it can be confusing as to why such a controversial symbol would be adopted by a nationalist organization. According to the article, “Why are Swastikas Hot in West Ukraine,” the leader of the organization Ostip Stokhiv stated that the swastika was adopted because it is a strong symbol. The previous symbol of the organization which was a lion making its way up a steep hillside was not garnering attention to the organization. However, when the symbol was changed to a yellow swastika on a black field, it caught people’s attention and the party became more popular. Ukrainian soldiers, particularly those in the west, have begun wearing the swastika and SS letters on their uniform, such as their helmets.
The east and west areas of the Ukraine are very split in their allegiances. Eastern Ukraine backs Russia and the victory by the Red Army over the German invaders “while in the Ukrainian-speaking west, where most of the anti-Soviet insurgents fought, monuments have been erected and streets have been named in their honor” as stated by the article “Ukraine’s controversial WWII Legacy Lives On as a Nation Remains Divided Over Nazi Allegiances.” Many in western Ukraine have taken to praising Stepan Bandera. Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist as well as a leader of the independence and nationalist leader for Ukraine against the Soviet Union. He is known for having sided with the Germans in World War II in fighting the Soviets. However, he is also notoriously known as a murderer and led massacres against ethnic groups. Western Ukraine appears to be using the symbol of the swastika, the SS, and Banderas as it applies to them. Many in western Ukraine see Bandera as a hero and fighter for independence as the articles “Hero or Villian” suggests. Western Ukraine appears to focus on how Bandera’s symbol represents their fight for freedom from Russian influence.
It is possible that the reunification of Ukraine after the Poland invasion can be seen as the beginning of the tension and differences in beliefs as parts of Ukraine had been separated and then forced back together. Those in the Ukraine do not seem to be neo-Nazis. Instead several articles, such as “Why are Swastikas Hot in West Ukraine” and “Ukraine’s controversial WWII Legacy Lives On as a Nation Remains Divided Over Nazi Allegiances,” claim that the swastika and SS symbols have been adopted because they strike a chord with the people and get the organization noticed.
Nemtsova, Anna. “Why are Swastikas Hot in West Ukraine.” The Daily Beast (October, 17, 2014). Accessed October 27, 2014. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/17/why-are-swastikas-hot-in-west-ukraine.html.
“Stepan Bandera.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 27, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stepan_Bandera.
Shapiro, Ari. “Hero or Villian? Historical Ukrainian Figure Symbolizes Today’s Feud.” NPR (May, 20, 2014). Accessed October 27, 2014.
Danilova, Maria. “Ukraine’s Conrtoverial WWII Legacy Lives On as a Nation Remains Divided Over Nazi Allegiances.” Huffington Post (August 1, 2013). Accessed October 27, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/ukraine-wwii-legacy_n_3688865.html.
Crowd with Nazi Symbol Image retrieved from:http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-kiev-regime-is-not-officially-a-neo-nazi-government/5384722.
Soldiers’ Helmets with Swastika and SS Symbol Image retrieved from: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/german-tv-shows-nazi-symbols-helmets-ukraine-soldiers-n198961.
Crows with Bandera Portrait retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/05/20/312719066/hero-or-villain-historical-ukrainian-figure-symbolizes-todays-feud.